Caldecott winners dish out insights into the winding path to literary success

Jul 6 2013 - 9:17pm

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Jon Klassen
Jon Klassen

Creating a children's book can be frustrating, lonely, challenging and just plain hard. But it's also spectacularly fulfilling.

That was the message at the annual American Library Association banquet celebrating the latest winners of the Newbery Medal (given each year for the best-written children's book) and the Caldecott Medal (given for the best-illustrated children's book). The dinner took place during the ALA's annual conference, held June 28-July 2 in Chicago. The winners were announced in January.

More than 1,000 children's-book lovers attended the banquet, which also marked the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal. In another particularly interesting moment for the Caldecott, Jon Klassen won the 2013 Caldecott Medal -- and a 2013 Caldecott Honor, or runner-up citation, for his book "Extra Yarn" (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 4-8). This was the first time that one illustrator had won both a Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor since artist Leonard Weisgard did it in 1947.

Here's a closer look at the speeches by Klassen, who won the 2013 Caldecott Medal for his picture book "This Is Not My Hat" (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 4-8), and Katherine Applegate, who won the 2013 Newbery Medal for "The One and Only Ivan" (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12).

Mastering anxieties

In "This Is Not My Hat," author/illustrator Klassen takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to absurdly comical heights. His narrator is a little fish who has stolen a small blue bowler hat from a huge fish and thinks he can get away with it, totally forgetting the law of nature where big eats little.

So it was fitting that the 31-year-old Klassen -- wearing a hat celebrating the Chicago Blackhawks' recent Stanley Cup victory -- began his speech by noting that he became a picture-book author/illustrator in part "to avoid the things I don't feel especially strong in.

''It is a long and varied list, but somewhere near the top of it are fielding compliments and public speaking," Klassen told the crowd. "Giving a speech to everyone I work with and admire within the context of the biggest professional compliment I could ever hope to get is kind of a perfect storm of things I set my life up trying to avoid."

Despite his shyness about public speaking, Klassen managed to give an insightful speech about how he created his Caldecott Medal-winning book. Most of the time, according to Klassen, he spent mastering his anxieties about how he could ever create a good-enough picture book.

For example, Klassen said that he is still amazed to see copies of his books for sale in bookstores, especially because he can see all the things he should have done better.

''... (I)t's like seeing a picture of your family in a frame on a store shelf. You think, 'That's not supposed to be outside!' And you glance wildly around the store, as if everyone around you is devoting their whole minds to all the mistakes that might be on the cover alone."

What kind of mistakes? Things like lettering, according to Klassen, who noted that "there are people who spend their whole lives on lettering and the rules that make it work, and here I am drawing my own letters like a jerk."

Interestingly, Klassen noted that the structure of "This Is Not My Hat" echoes "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. As Klassen explains: "In his story, we have a narrator talking to us in the first person about something he did that was wrong.

''What makes both characters ('The Tell-Tale Heart''s narrator and Klassen's fish) sort of doomed from the outset is that, even though what they're saying makes sense to them, they've actually drifted off into a place where we as an audience can't back them up anymore."

Ghostwriter finds fame

Applegate, for her part, wanted to make sure that her audience at the banquet had no illusions about how she began as a writer.

''I believe I can stand before you tonight and say, with some confidence, that I am the first Newbery Medalist in history to have co-authored not one but two 'Harlequin Temptation' romances," Applegate said, referring to a line of romance novels.

''I should probably note here that it's way too late for you to reconsider your choice of medal winner."

As beginning authors years ago, Applegate and her husband, writer Michael Grant, started by writing romances, then moved on to other kinds of writing.

''Michael and I wrote together, we wrote individually and we wrote a lot. After the romances, I was a ghostwriter (wrote under the name of other authors) for years. I ghosted so much that I was positively ecoplasmic for a while."

Some years later, Applegate finally found fame and fortune in the "Animorphs" series, a best-selling franchise for readers ages 8-12 that she co-authored with her husband. Yet there came a point where she wanted to do more.

''After so many series books, I wanted to write a book with a beginning, a middle and an end. I wanted to take risks with writing, to challenge myself," Applegate said. "I wanted to find a unique voice -- and eventually I did, even if it did belong to a gorilla."

Applegate was inspired to write her Newbery Medal-winning novel after hearing the story of Ivan, a gorilla who lived for years in a cage in a run-down Tacoma, Wash., strip mall until outraged animal lovers forced Ivan's owners to move him to the Atlanta Zoo.

Yes, "Ivan" is a sad story, Applegate acknowledged in her speech, adding that "children know all about sadness.

''We can't hide it from them. We can only teach them how to cope with its inevitability, and to harness their imagination in the search for joy and wonder. Nothing, nothing in the world can do this better than a book."

But "Ivan" also is a hopeful story, Applegate added. While "it's not a perfect ending ... things aren't black-and-white in the world, and they shouldn't be in a children's novel, either.

''What makes children ... better people than the rest of us is that, despite everything, they're buoyant, unrepentant optimists."

Then Applegate directly addressed her audience of librarians, thanking them for their work and added: "(E)very time you find the right, the necessary, book for a child -- a book about sadness overcome, unfairness battled, hearts mended -- you perform the best kind of magic."

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